Two years before 1989, the biggest and also strangest student protest at Tiananmen Square in modern China occurred in a manner that surprised everybody, even the students themselves. It was a protest that was almost not meant to be.
In the Fall of 1986, a wave of student protests, triggered by local elections, had swept several southern cities. It climaxed at Shanghai, where on December 20, 1986, in defiance of direct orders from then Mayor Jiang Zemin (江泽民), about 100,000 students marched on the street and virtually shutdown the entire city. They were protesting brutal police actions the day before, as well as asking for liberty and democracy, a stable of student movements in China.
But things were unusually quiet in Beijing that December. Perhaps for the first time in China's history, a major student movement was going on, elsewhere, without Beida (Peking University, 北大) in the lead, or involved at all. It was so amazing that newspaper in Beijing ran stories praising Beida students for their focus in studies. Some in Beida quipped that since we didn't get to lead [the movement] this time, why bother to follow?
The Beijing authority was nevertheless very nervous. On December 26, the City Council rushed to approve a 10-point regulation on public demonstrations. It required organizers to apply for a permit way in advance and appeared to declare key areas, such as Tiananmen Square, off-limits for assemblies and protests. This so-called Beijing 10-Points might just have finally provided the trigger for Beida students to spring into action.
Near the end of the year, a few unsigned posters appeared in Beida with a simple message: “Let’s Go March at Tiananmen Square on New Year’s Day!” Other than challenging the new regulations, there appeared to be no purpose for the march and no organizers were noted. It was difficult to determine whether the posters were genuine or just a practical joke. In any event, few thought a march was a good idea and almost nobody openly indicated they would be going. But the government was nervous enough that they put out a stern warning in the press, promising to severely punish anyone who dared to defy the regulations and protest at Tiananmen. City residents were warned not to go to Tiananmen for any reason that day. The stakes for this phantom march was now on the rise.
The New Year's Day of 1987 was heavily overcast and very cold in Beijing. An interesting scene was unfolding at the Tiananmen Square in the morning. A large group of Young Pioneers, the Communist equivalent of Boy/Girl Scouts, were staging a large ceremony at the center. With that as a pretense, police lined up three-deep, completely sealed off the Square. Outside of the police line, however, there were onlookers who were obviously college students, milling around and gathering in spontaneous clusters here and there. A few attempts to rush the police line developed, but failed. Police started to tighten up their lines and ready for any charge from the crowd.
Around noon, a crowd with make-shift banners formed at the northeast corner of the Square. The leading banner was a large sheet of pink plastic cloth with a curious message: “Support Xiaoping! Support the Reform!” Whoever made that banner obviously did not want anyone to think that the crowd was anti-government. As the crowd marched around to gather up more participants, it turned away from the Square, chanting slogans and singing patriotic songs. The policemen were puzzled but relieved. After all, they were ordered to protect the Square itself. It was okay if the students wanted to march somewhere else.
But the relief was short-lived. As the crowd gathered momentum, it turned around and suddenly charged back into the Square. What followed was a scene of chaos and horror. Caught off-guard, the police rushed in to grab any students they could reach. Those caught were thrown into waiting police vans. Other students were beaten. When the crowd was finally dispersed, more than fifty students were detained; 34 of them were from Beida. Among them were two who would play very significant roles in 1989: Liu Gang (刘刚) and Feng Congde (封从德). They did not know each other then.
The evening news reported that some hundreds of "hooligans" tried to engage in disruptive behavior at Tiananmen Square that day but were unsuccessful when the police had "taken some of them away from the scene." The report was careful not to term those students as "arrested" or even "detained".
Later that night, in freezing cold and snow, thousands of students marched out of Beida again. They pushed through a police barrier and headed towards Tiananmen Square. They wanted to get their classmates back. It was not until 3am, when the march was half-way there, news caught up with them that all detained students had been released.
The march finally stopped, in an incredulous mode of disbelief, excitement, and relief. For the first time under the Communist rule, the government had succumbed to people’s pressure and released wrongfully detained citizens.
It was a special New Year, indeed.
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